Beer and Civic Life

by Susan McWilliams on March 20, 2009 · 18 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low

Claremont, CA. The news is dreadful: According to the Census, since 2006 we have been living in a republic where, for the first time in the history of the republic, Americans drink more bottled water than we drank beer.

Why is this important?  It’s important because beer is a socially oriented beverage, and bottled water is a privately oriented one.

There’s a reason that beer commercials tend to include lots of people hanging out in a room together, and bottled water commercials tend to include lone individuals climbing things and running around by themselves, usually on a beach at sunrise – even though they are not being chased.

Drinking beer emanates, albeit clumsily and with all the familiar risks, from essentially social impulses.  Most people drink beer to lower social inhibitions, to make it easier to have conversations with other people, to assuage loneliness, to grease the wheels for engaging in what my students euphemistically call “relationships” – in other words, to give a form and excuse for social life.  You don’t drink beer to improve your private, individual health.

By contrast, you don’t drink bottled water if you want to have an excuse to hang out with your friends.  Drinking bottled water emanates from essentially private or individual concerns.  It’s pretty straightforward, actually: you drink bottled water precisely because you do not want to drink common water; you literally do not want to sip from the public trough.   The ascendance of bottled water in America is yet another signal of the ascendance of a culture that is individually oriented, almost pathologically obsessive about bodily health, and suspicious of the public sphere.

Now, we political scientists have long recognized that one of the dominant trends in American life is the increasing atomization and isolation of the American individual.  More and more, Americans are retreating from the public sphere in all of its forms and falling back into what Alexis de Tocqueville described as “the solitude of our own hearts,” into a kind of apathetic insularity.  Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist, has described this as the “decline of social capital” in America – the deterioration of almost every organized community and social bond that makes for a vibrant civic life.

In terms of small-d democratic life, of course, this is a dangerous trend: The less people’s lives are outward-looking, spent outside and with others, and the more people’s lives are inward-looking, spent inside and on insular terms, the less care attends to the public sphere.  And as a number of political scholars have pointed out, any time you have a pervasive and soft indifference to the public sphere, you are likely to develop a politics that loses its moderation, that becomes ever more polarized, dominated by extremists and oligarchs.

Now, it seems, that danger is at an all-time high.

The American retreat from the public sphere and associational activity now extends, apparently, beyond the avoidance of often frustrating and tedious civic rituals like attending a town council meeting or running for a seat on the PTA.  Now that avoidance seems to have extended into the fun and vaguely bacchanalian civic rituals, like going out for a drink after work.

I’ve read, too, that during recessions that the amount of alcohol Americans drink doesn’t decline, but the amount of alcohol Americans drink in public does. This could mean even grimmer times are ahead.

This is the kind of thing that, well, makes me want to go out for a drink.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar James Matthew Wilson March 20, 2009 at 1:21 pm


But where was the obligatory Chesterton reference?

avatar JD March 20, 2009 at 1:42 pm

Save the Republic! Drink!

avatar X-Cathedra March 20, 2009 at 3:24 pm


avatar W March 20, 2009 at 3:50 pm

Sorry, Susan, but your thesis can be disproved by three words: ‘Germany’ & ‘Czech Republic.’

avatar polistra March 20, 2009 at 3:55 pm

The same thing could be said of tobacco, which is also a
good socializer. Serious totalitarians always try to
remove natural socializers.

avatar Sam M March 20, 2009 at 10:12 pm

Perhaps we can blame the modern thirst for “good beer”? I mean, seriously. Do you need a $16 Belgian to do the trick? In the good old days of America as a “place,” a Schlitz and a pretzel was all you needed to get a conversation rolling with the Joneses. Now weveryone is BS in about whose hops trump whose barley.

Methinks this all became way to precious a long time ago. Sorry, Anchor Steam. Gimme a Miller Lite.

avatar D.W. Sabin March 21, 2009 at 12:12 pm

Yes, but the resurgence in all manner of boutique concoctions leaves a glimmer of hope for vox unpopulari. Although I myself am voluntarily consigned to spiritous purgatory as a result of receiving too many birthday cards from the Isle of Islay than is prudent, Sonny boy showed me how far the brewers art has come in this country by producing an ale from Alaska, fermented with the sweet new buds of tender Spruce. A nation of six fresh water faucets for each citizen, that then goes off merrily and buys water bottled from same faucets for something exceeding the cost of milk…..well, it dasn’t deserve beer. I once read an article somewhere that went to epic lengths extolling the rise in “Designer Waters”. This little bit of dramatic hyperbole was perhaps but another banner waved by our “Designer Education”.

Smoke, newspapers and spiritous liquors in decline……no wonder the economy is beginning to look like a Nevada Playa without the recreational chalets at yon end of valley. Perhaps the general obliteration of inhibitions in this congenitally amateur culture where sybaritic rites involve television, makes beer only good for hangovers.

I shall have the afternoon cheroot in honor of your August Good Sense Ms. McWilliams, before lighting the bonfire in our annual pagan ritual of burning of the Christmas Tree on the First Weekend after March 20. If only somebody had some Spruce Bud Ale now, we would attempt to pervert the general trends.

avatar Nathan P. Origer March 21, 2009 at 1:56 pm

Belloc: Better beer and a greater choice would result from penalizing the large brewery and with the revenue subsidizing the small one, down to the cottage brewer.

avatar Mark Shiffman March 21, 2009 at 2:29 pm

I think Sam M’s got it all backward. I know I’m not the only person who would not drink beer at all if Schlitz and such were the only option (I’d be sipping the liquid peat smoke with D.W.), so I have to think that some tasteful variety can only help consumption levels.

avatar Thomas O. Meehan March 21, 2009 at 3:01 pm

A good general point but there are some tangential elements to consider.

1. People have been terrorized for a generation about toxins in drinking water. It’s bogus but people do believe it.

2. The chlorine we put in tap water to make it safe also makes it taste awful.

3. The myth that we are all seriously dehydrated has only recently been debunked. I suspect many people still believe it, particularly young women who drink vast quantities of bottled water as an aid to dieting.

3. The Mothers Against Drunken Driving crusade against tipplers has banished the joy of going out for a drink in many areas of the country. I suggest you start “Mothers against Perrier”immediately! But seriously,the draconian crackdown of DUI enforcement has gone beyond all reason and, like the War on Drugs, is used by the authorities as a revenue source.

On a positive note, is the growth of local micro-breweries, and brew pubs. Craft brewing is reviving a great tradition and does encourage Localism.

avatar Russell Arben Fox March 22, 2009 at 8:02 am

Us teetotalers have to find substitutes to keep our civic engines well lubricated. I recommend a good bbq sauce.

avatar JJM March 22, 2009 at 1:53 pm

I liked this post better when it was called “Bowling Alone.”

avatar William Burns March 23, 2009 at 7:31 am

This argument as presented makes no sense. What is the evidence that bottled water is increasing at the expense of beer? Perhaps beer is declining relative to wine and cocktails, and bottled water gaining at the expense of tap water and soft drinks. As a trend story, this is at a David Brooks level of analysis.

avatar Oona April 22, 2009 at 7:22 pm

What about virtual beer? A while ago it became popular for five minutes to give people drinks on facebook. That is the end, end of the public domain, no?

avatar Thomas O. Meehan April 22, 2009 at 11:40 pm

Oona, beware of inorganic beer! My friend Hank Hill says, “If it doesn’t make you burp and bloat, it ain’t real beer”!

avatar patrick March 15, 2010 at 3:35 pm

americans are drinking more bottled water because much, much, more of our water is bottled than ever before. the main competitor to bottled water isn’t bottled beer, but plain old tap water. you point out that water is marketed as a product for individual health, but the point of these advertisements is to get people to buy bottled water for their healthy lifestyles instead of getting the same product from the tap for practically nothing.

The point is, people are giving up tap water for bottle water, which probably has nothing to do with how often people drink beer (or, more importantly, how often they drink beer with other people. this is to say nothing of the fact that bottled water is also replacing tap water in social environments like restaurants).

avatar Jed March 21, 2010 at 11:02 pm

I knew a wise woman who once wrote “Free beer = democracy.”

avatar Thomas O. Meehan April 1, 2010 at 12:01 am

The old gal had it wrong. It’s free Ale = Democracy.

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